Professional Development

Author Archive

Words and Pictures: Megan at Rare Book School

Tuesday, August 2, 2016 1:40 pm

I spent last week looking at pictures. Sounds relaxing, no? But since I was taking a class at the University of Virginia’s summer Rare Book School, it was enlightening but intense week, with a large amount of information absorbed in a very short time.

Illustration from Wenceslaus Hollar's Theatrum Mulierum

An illustration from Wenceslaus Hollar’s Theatrum Mulierum (1643) is an example of Chine-collé technique, in which a print is made on very fine, thin paper and then mounted onto a thicker backing page. From the ZSR Library Special Collections & Archives copy.


Rare Book School offers a variety of classes every year, on a wide array of special-collections-related topics. This year I was keen to take “History of Printed Book Illustration in the West,” taught by Erin Blake of the Folger Library.

ZSR’s special collections have a wealth of illustrated materials. And in recent years I’ve noticed a rapidly growing demand for our visual resources in teaching, research, social media, and other special projects.

Bernard Salomon woodcut from Vitruvius, De Architectura (Paris 1586)

Bernard Salomon’s woodcut illustrations for Vitruvius’s De Architectura went through many editions during the Renaissance. This example from ZSR’s Special Collections was printed in Paris in 1586.


I went into the class with a basic knowledge of the history of book illustration, but after a week under Erin’s tutelage, I now have a much enhanced understanding of illustration techniques, and I know more about the innovative and influential artists of the past 600 years. I can now with some confidence tell my etchings from my engravings and my collotypes from my photogravures.

American Entomology butterflies

An illustration from Thomas Say’s American Entomology (Philadelphia, 1824) is an etching hand-painted with watercolors. From the ZSR Library Special Collections’ copy.


I’m eager to deploy this new information in next year’s teaching. But I’ve also realized that I need to enhance the metadata for the visual aspects of our books. Academic library cataloging has traditionally viewed the text as primary, with illustrations, in most cases, of secondary importance. With better documentation, we’ll be able to make even more extensive use of special collections’ exciting visual resources.

Megan at RBMS

Friday, July 17, 2015 9:39 am

“Preserve the Humanities! Special Collections as Liberal Arts Laboratory” was the theme for the annual conference of the Rare Books and Manuscripts Section of ACRL, held this year in Oakland, CA during the week preceding ALA. Sessions at the Oakland conference center and the Berkeley campus explored the idea of special collections as source material for humanities research, and librarians as both facilitators of and participants in this research.

Many of the sessions were about planning and providing instruction in special collections. I participated in one on undergraduate instruction (along with librarians from Johns Hopkins and Auburn), giving a presentation on how I developed and taught ZSR’s History of the Book (LIB260) class. Our session drew a standing-room-only crowd, which I think attests to the fact that instruction has become a major priority for special collections librarians and archivists in recent years.

There were of course more very interesting concurrent sessions than I could attend (without a time-turner). One proposed a “User-Driven Manifesto” and offered case studies of how a user-centered culture can be implemented in special collections outreach. Another session, “Bridging Borders between Special Collections and Area Studies,” discussed the challenges of collecting and outreach for collections of materials from non-western cultures.

I particularly enjoyed the second plenary session, “Special Collections Libraries as Liberal Arts Laboratories.” Rachel Sagner Buurma from Swarthmore gave an account of her ongoing Early Novels Database project, in which undergraduate researchers create detailed metadata for works of 18th century fiction. And Kimberly Christen Withey described the Plateau Peoples project at Washington State University. This digital portal for archival materials of Indians of eastern Washington and surrounding areas uses Murkutu, a CMS software designed specifically for digital heritage collections of indigenous communities.

As always, I came away from RBMS with many new ideas and a renewed appreciation for the innovative work being done by special collections librarians across the country!

Understanding the Medieval Book symposium

Monday, April 27, 2015 12:41 pm

I recently attended the fifth annual “Understanding the Medieval Book” symposium at the University of South Carolina. This event, organized each year by Dr. Scott Gwara of the USC English department, brings together about 20 participants for two days of lectures and workshops by an expert medievalist. Registration is free, and the symposium always draws a wide range of attendees– students, teaching faculty, librarians, rare-book dealers– who provide diverse perspectives on using medieval collections. Meetings are held in the Irvin Rare Books & Special Collections department of the Ernest F. Hollings Special Collections Library, making use of the library’s extensive collection of medieval manuscript codices and fragments.

This year’s expert facilitator was Dr. David Gura, Curator of Ancient and Medieval Manuscripts, Early Imprints, and History of the Book at Notre Dame’s Medieval Institute. Dr. Gura led participants in a crash course on bibliographic description and citation of medieval manuscripts. He also gave a presentation on a fascinating project with which he is involved at Notre Dame– an attempt to reunite and digitize all pages of a Breton book of hours recently broken up and sold piecemeal by a dealer in Germany.

As usual, I came back from the symposium with useful information and some new ideas about ZSR’s small but interesting collection of medieval manuscripts. Dr. Gwara is also in the process of launching a new digital humanities initiative called Manuscriptlink, which will collect digitized fragments from libraries throughout the world. ZSR Special Collections will participate in this digital collection, and we are looking forward to making our previously “hidden” manuscripts available to a worldwide scholarly audience.


Megan at RBMS 2013

Friday, July 5, 2013 12:24 pm

The Rare Books and Manuscripts Section of ACRL held its annual ALA preconference in Minneapolis this year. This is the major professional conference for special collections librarians. Rebecca and Anna also attended, and it was great to have (for the first time ever!) some other ZSR attendees with me at RBMS. The theme this year was Performance in Special Collections, which made for some interesting sessions on performing arts collections, performance in libraries and special collections, and librarianship as a sort of performance. Minneapolis provided a terrific (if surprisingly hot) backdrop for a very busy two-and-a-half days.

RBMS held its first ever poster sessions at this conference, and Rebecca and I debuted a poster on the Gertrude and Max Hoffmann Collection. Our poster’s striking visuals and colorful backstory generated a lot of interest among our fellow conference attendees. As I had hoped, we were able to connect with librarians and archivists from repositories with related materials.

Anna Milholland and I were panelists for a discussion session called Lifting the Curtain: Interlibrary Loan and Special Collections. The session was organized by Christian Dupont of Atlas Systems and Jennifer Schaffner of the OCLC Research Library Partnership in hopes of encouraging special collections librarians to collaborate with their ILL colleagues and to make use of the ACRL/RBMS Guidelines for Interlibrary and Exhibition Load of Special Collections Materials in developing institutional policies. Anna and I shared our experience of finding common ground between ILL and Special Collections and developing policies and workflows that help us collaborate in providing access to non-circulating materials. Our other panelists (from Penn State and NY Public Library) shared similar experiences, and lively discussion ensued. The most controversial issue was the lending of actual special collections materials through ILL. But there was also an interesting exchange of ideas about large scale scanning of requested materials, which is often put forth as a solution to the lending dilemma, but which raises workflow and preservation issues of its own. The upshot was that each institution faces its own set of challenges, but that a workable solution can almost always be found.

Two sessions that I found particularly interesting were on assessment of special collections and archives instruction. The first, Reviewing our (Classroom) Performance: Evaluating Special Collections Instruction, featured Suzy Taraba from Wesleyan U., Julie Gardner from U. of Chicago, and Sarah Horowitz from Augustana College. All three described their own experiences in trying to develop better assessment tools for special collections class instruction. Some key points that resonated with me:

  • If you want to create a useful assessment tool, it’s important to have a clear idea of your desired learning outcomes going in.
  • Surveys and evaluations that work well for regular information literacy classes won’t necessarily be a good fit for special collections instructions.
  • Positive feedback is nice but not always very useful-may send message to administration that no additional resources are needed. We need to ask questions that get beyond the initial “Wow, I got to hold a really old book!” response.
  • Don’t expect a quick fix. Special collections classes are not homogeneous; what works well for one class may not for another. But it can be useful to identify similar types of classes that may be able to use the same assessment tool.
  • Faculty may be more reliable than students in assessing long-term impact of special collections instruction, so follow-up with professors is important.
  • Look for creative ways to gain information and foster a culture of assessment. Build assessment into class assignments, add questions to class evaluations (with faculty cooperation), request copies of student papers/assignments that used special collections materials (I can attest that this is really useful).

The second session, titled Progressing Primary Source Literacy: Guidelines, Standards and Assessment, took a more theoretical approach to the problem of how to define and assess primary source literacy.

Gordon Davies of BYU began the seminar by pointing out that there is currently no agreed-upon definition of primary source literacy. Most librarians and archivists would agree that it should include both the skills and knowledge set that would allow students to locate and use primary source materials effectively, and also a higher-level archival intelligence-an understating of archival theory and how it shapes primary sources, and of the implications of using surrogates (digital or otherwise). But this definition is not widely understood outside of the special collections/archives world, as Gordon found when he attempted to cross-list his honors course in archival literacy with his History department. So, an official RBMS/SAA statement on primary source literacy would be useful.

Next up was archival metrics guru Elizabeth Yakel of the U. of Michigan. Elizabeth and her colleagues are on the forefront of archival assessment in general, and I won’t attempt to summarize her research (see here if you’re interested in learning more: But basically she reiterated the need to assess learning impact of special collections instruction on students in three areas: cognitive/behavioral (perceived value of archives instruction/experience), affective (attitudes toward special collections/archives), and behavioral (measure future use of special collections and archives).

Finally Julie Grob of the U. of Houston wrapped up with some salient point from her own extensive experience with special collections instruction. She reiterated that the ACRL information literacy competency standards have not proved to be very applicable to special collections and archives assessment (although they may serve as a useful jumping-off point in developing specific primary source literacy standards). Julie has surveyed faculty members about desired learning outcomes for special collections instruction and found that traditional information literacy priorities ranked at the bottom. The implications of this, and of the not-infrequent disconnect between librarian and faculty priorities in instruction, are issues that we need to deal with. She also made the point that instruction with archival materials and instruction with rare books are different animals, each with their own rewards and challenges.

Lots of interesting discussion followed this session. It’s clear that many people are grappling with issues of how best to design, provide, and assess special collections and archives instruction.

For hard-core descriptive bibliography fans, there was a session called Bibliography in Action, which highlighted three fascinating projects of bibliographic description and detective work. Alice Schreyer described the nearly-completed descriptive catalog of the Bibliotheca Homerica Langiana collection at the University of Chicago, which has been a long-term collaborative effort of librarians, teaching faculty, and graduate students. Stephen Tabor of the Huntington Library discussed his ongoing research on the incredibly complicated publishing history of 17th century poet James Shirley’s Triumph of Peace. And Andrew Gaub from Bruce McKittrick Rare Books, Inc., shared his story of how intrepid research yielded a surprising amount of information about the provenance of a 16th century broadside.

A seminar on connecting book dealers and rare-books librarians revealed that there is considerable disagreement in both the library and commercial world about the efficacy of social media and electronic communication in general vs. traditional paper catalogs and in-person networking. And plenary sessions highlighted a number of diverse arts collections from across the country and described the creative ways that librarians are collecting, preserving, describing, and publicizing these materials.

As usual, RBMS had many more interesting sessions than it was possible for one person without a time-turner to attend!

Megan at Rare Book School

Friday, June 24, 2011 5:10 pm

I spent last week reliving my grad school days at the University of Virginia by taking a class at Rare Book School. RBS (not to be confused with RBMS, which is the ALA Rare Books and Manuscripts Section) offers a wide variety of weeklong classes, taught by experts in their fields, on everything from medieval paleography to archiving born-digital materials. My class was “Teaching the History of the Book,” taught by RBS director Michael Suarez.

I’ve taken RBS classes before, so I knew that I was in for a fairly intense learning experience. Like most classes, mine had a preliminary reading list. RBS classes meet daily from 8:30-5:00, with evening lectures and events most days. It’s a serious time commitment, but the payoff is the chance to immerse oneself for a week in a topic of interest with a dozen other similarly-obsessed people.

“Teaching the History of the Book” covered exactly what its title implied– theories and methods of teaching book history, descriptive and analytical bibliography, textual criticism, and print culture to students at the undergraduate and graduate level. My classmates were teaching faculty and special collections librarians from a wide variety of institutions. Everyone had slightly different areas of interest and expertise, and the sharing of ideas was invaluable. Class discussions ranged from the highly theoretical (what exactly is Book History anyway?) to the very practical (how do you give undergraduates a basic vocabulary and understanding of descriptive bibliography without overwhelming them?).

I came away with a lot of great ideas, a 1500 page digital coursepack, and a general affirmation of my belief that instruction and outreach is vital in special collections. Michael Suarez is a passionate advocate of the centrality of book history and bibliography to a liberal arts education, and one of his major emphases in the class was our responsibility as educators to pass along an understanding of the importance of book history to our students, fellow faculty, and administrators. The consensus of all the class members was that the only way to do this is to be proactive in creating courses and class sessions, since many faculty and students are highly receptive to ideas of book history but don’t know how to integrate them into the curriculum.

I’m planning to put all this knowledge to good use by developing a LIB200 History of the Book class for spring 2012. This should prove an exciting opportunity to use our Special Collections resources in the classroom in a new and more in-depth way.

RBMS 2010

Monday, June 28, 2010 12:22 pm

2010 ACRL Rare Books & Manuscripts Section preconference.

RBMS was in Philadelphia this year, with an official theme of Join or Die: Collaboration in Special Collections.

The opening plenary session highlighted the work of PACSCL (Philadelphia Area Consortium of Special Collections Libraries), a 25-year-old consortium that now includes over 30 member institutions. Although the particular concentration of academic and independent cultural resource institutions in the Philadelphia area make PACSCL unique, the principles on which it was founded and its continuing mission can provide a model for cooperative special collections programs. Perhaps most interesting is the way in which its collective energies are being refocused from cataloging/processing projects to more outwardly focused initiatives, especially K-12 educational programs. Not that processing and digitization projects have been abandoned: we heard at length about PACSCL’s latest project, a CLIR Hidden Collections grant-funded initiative to address manuscript backlogs at several member institutions using a MPLP model.

As usual, RBMS had many, many interesting and concurrently scheduled sessions!

Some highlights:

Discussion session: Quick Innovations for Teaching with Special Collections

Three brief case study papers, followed by lively discussion.

  • Mattie Taormina (Stanford) described a class session designed for middle-schoolers that demonstrated how books provide artifactual information
  • Anne Bahde (SanDiego State) demonstrated how she had successfully used Zotero for collaborative class assignments involving special collections materials
  • Jeffrey Makala (U of South Carolina) described Craig’s and my dream class! Combined history of books component with rare books librarian and hands-on letterpress printing component in library’s printing lab. AND they have a brand-new special collections library building at USC. Yes, I am jealous.

Lots of interesting discussion in this session, with people sharing different ideas and programs that they’ve found successful. I put in a plug for our ALA Connect group on Teaching Strategies for Special Collections, in hopes of attracting some new members.

Case Study panel on teaching

A second session on teaching gave some more in-depth case studies involving special collections collaboration and pedagogy.

Julie Grob collaborated with an English faculty member in an embedded-ish manner for a semester long class. Students used special collections materials related to the subject of the class for a series of specific assignments throughout the semester and for their final research papers. Julie stressed the need for communication and collaboration between librarian and professor both in planning stages and as the class progressed. Since they were able to demonstrate that the class contributed to the U. of Houston’s mandate for development of inquiry-based learning, they were able to get university funding to purchase relevant special collections materials for future classes. Indeed, all three of the projects described in this session received some type of financial support from their parent institutions.

Marianne Hansen described an intensely collaborative art history class at Bryn Mawr in which students studied and then created a sizeable library exhibit about medieval books of hours. This provided the students with a scenario in which collaboration was genuinely necessary– in contrast to some artificially constructed “group projects”. Students enjoyed the class, and even university administration took note!

Stewart Plein and English professor Marilyn Francus developed a rare books pedagogy project– a flexible series of exercises designed that can be adapted to classes in a variety of disciplines. The intent was to encourage faculty at West Virginia U. to integrate special collections into their syllabi. Success among WVU faculty has been somewhat limited. Faculty initially seemed confused about the intent of the exercises– didn’t understand that they were models to be adapted– and were reluctant to change their syllabi to include special collections activities. However, the website has generated interest from people at various other institutions.

Discussion session- Small & Medium Sized Libraries

Anne Bahde (SanDiego State) and Lynne Thomas (Northern Illinois) moderated this very active discussion session on a variety of issues affecting non-large collections. Participants included those of us attached to larger academic libraries (sometimes very large universities/libraries with proportionally small special collections depts.) and others from independent historical societies, museums, and other institutions. Discussion was wide-ranging, but some general themes included:

  • the importance of assessment tools and procedures for smaller collections which may need to justify their existences to parent institutions;
  • the challenge of providing good access and reference service with very limited staff;
  • and the potential of various Web 2.0 tools in small special collections.

Seminar: Collections Processing: Innovations in student involvement

This session highlighted programs at Goucher College and at the Amistad Research Center that made extensive use of student employees, interns, and volunteers for cataloging and processing projects.

Goucher College CLIR grant project used students to create DCRB level bibliographic descriptions for monograph and sheet music collections. Students were carefully screened– application process included submission of a resume and academic writing sample, and an interview with project staff– and they received fairly intensive training in descriptive bibliography. Students were tasked with bibliographic description of items from the rare books collection. They filled out a standard worksheet based on MARC fields and DCRB; completed worksheets were reviewed by project staff and entered into actual MARC record by cataloger. Intensive level of description and narrowly defined collections meant that students became subject experts fairly quickly and were able to work mostly independently after initial training and workshops.

Amistad Research Center is an independent research library on the campus of Tulane U. It employs student interns from many area institutions and uses student volunteers from Tulane, which recently added a community service component to its undergraduate curriculum. Two undergraduate history classes worked on enhancing descriptions for underprocessed collections and on creating finding aids for completely unprocessed collections. Interns from other schools, most of whom were minority students, worked on processing other collections from the backlog. After training in archival processing — a key component of which was observing professional staff process collections– students began by producing a collection survey, including list of authority terms and notes on preservation needs and original order. They then wrote the biographical/historical notes for their collections. Once these steps were accomplished, students could generally complete the processing relatively independently.

There were many lessons learned from the various experiences with student processors:

Invest time in thorough training at the beginning of projects or semesters; this will mean more independent students and fewer interruptions for staff in the long run.

For class projects, make sure to get a clear idea of faculty member’s vision for how the students’ processing projects fit with overall goals and outcomes of the class.

“Students will be students” — build in ways to deal with procrastination, varying aptitudes and learning styles/rates.

Develop methods for tracking students’ daily workflow when permanent staff is otherwise occupied. Amistad used student work journals filled out after every session.

It’s always nice to be able to match processing projects to student interests. But this may not always be possible, since repository’s priorities must also be taken into account.

Small collections are best for student processors. Enhancement of existing minimal finding aids is also a good thing for students to do.

Considerable discussion ensued on the pros and cons of using students to do processing and cataloging work. Pros: students are cheap and readily available; for those with minimal permanent staff, students are sometimes the only option for addressing backlogs; using students for meaningful work in special collections provides an opportunity for librarians to be teachers/mentors; and in the case of places like Amistad, student internships can help recruit minorities into the profession. Cons: “students will be students”– they have lots of competing priorities and are sometimes unreliable; actual output of student workers may not justify a large investment of staff time for training and supervision; current economic situation can result in cheap or free students doing work that should really be done by permanent professional or paraprofessional staff.

Seminar: Bridging the Gap: Communication between Catalogers and Archivists

Very interesting speakers… addressing a problem that I’ve never really had, since I’ve been doing both rare books cataloging and manuscripts processing for the past decade or so. But for larger special collections the trend toward merging of technical services functions and cross-training of metadata specialists can be a challenge. Margaret Nichols of Cornell and Kathy Wisser, late of UNC SILS and now part of the Simmons faculty, described historical differences in methods and philosophy between catalogers and archivists. David DeLorenzo of UC Berkeley discussed the changing role of a tech services department in a large special collection.

Traditional thinking is that cataloging and processing require opposite skills– splitting (cataloging) vs. lumping (processing). Catalogers deal with individual items that are consciously created. The purpose of a catalog record is to transcribe features of an item in a highly proscribed fashion, in order to distinguish one manifestation of a work from another. Archivists, on the other hand, deal with materials that are the sometimes accidental by-products of people’s lives. The purpose of an archival finding aid is to summarize the contents of a collection and put it in historical context. Hardcore practitioners in either field tend to be suspicious of the other’s methods.

However, the reality is that there are many forces of convergence for cataloging and processing today. Technical services in general is moving away from silos (note: first mention of s-word so far this conference) divided by format to a more team-based, cross-trained model. Digitization projects require shared metadata standards. They can also necessitate collection-level description of book collections and item-level description of manuscript items.

At any rate, I think it’s safe to say that ZSR is ahead of the curve on this trend.

Taking our Pulse: OCLC Research Survey of Special Collections and Archives

This was an informative session on the preliminary data gained from OCLC’s 2009 survey on special collections and archives. The OCLC survey was intended as a follow-up to the similar survey done by ARL in 1998, which spawned a lot of discussion and efforts, most notably the Hidden Collections initiative. The purpose of the OCLC study was to see what changes had occurred in special collections in the past ten years.

The distinguished panel of speakers – Jackie Dooley from OCLC, Bill Joyce representing ARL, Tom Hickerson (CARL), Steve Enniss (IRLA), and Suzy Taraba (Oberlin Group)-gave their perspectives on the survey’s findings and their implications.

Some trends that emerged were:

  • Special collections are growing quickly – 50% increase in print materials, 300-400% increase in audio-visual and other formats.
  • Space (lack of) is a primary concern for most institutions.
  • Use of special collections, especially by undergraduate students/classes is way up.
  • Many special collections are taking on entirely new collecting areas as a result of gifts and/or new curricular or other initiatives of their larger institutions.
  • There has been no corresponding increase in staffing of special collections. Small increases in digitization/technology staff are offset by decrease in reference staff.
  • There are still a lot of “hidden” collections and backlogs.
  • Many institutions have seen budget cuts due to economic downturn.
  • 78% of respondents have at least one completed digitization project; 25% have contracts with vendors to include materials from their collections in commercial digital products.
  • 44% have online finding aids for manuscript collections.
  • Institutional archives are often responsible by default for records management.
  • No one is prepared to deal with born-digital materials.
  • 75% of institutions do at least some “more product less process” type processing of manuscript and archival collections
  • 60% of respondents house some materials in off-site storage facilities.

Some questions/challenges/implications of all this:

  • Is dramatic growth in special collections and archives sustainable without major increases in funding/staffing?
  • Born-digital materials are a major problem-currently undercollected, underprocessed, undermanaged, and inaccessible. Special collections staff are already stretched thin and are not prepared to deal with this. Will require a collective effort by special collections community.
  • Trend toward minimally processed collections means more work for special collections reference staff, but these positions are being cut back.
  • Formal collaborative collection development projects are still rare. Why?
  • There is an urgent need for standardized metrics for gathering statistics on special collections.
  • Trend toward off-site storage of general library collections may free up space for special collections, but often this space is not useable without costly modifications.
  • OCLC survey did not address the increase in teaching – way beyond bibliographic instruction-now expected of special collections staff.

RBMS day 2

Friday, June 19, 2009 8:26 am

Today was the first official day of the RBMS preconference in Charlottesville. It’s the 50th annual RBMS, so we learned a lot about the history of the section. Plenary sessions began with a reminiscence by David Stam, University Librarian Emeritus at Syracuse, who had attended the first RBMS as a 23-year-old brand new employee at NYPL. Then there was the Keynote by the President of UVA, John Casteen, who emphasized the importance of primary sources in scholarly research.

The second plenary session featured Beverly Lynch discussing the interrelationship and parallel development of ACRL, RBMS, and library education.

All of the speakers were interesting, but the session that had me furiously taking notes was the presentation by Francis Blouin, director of the Bentley Historical Library at U of Michigan. Blouin’s talk was titled “Working with Our Research Communities”, but he managed in the space of 30 minutes to sum up the major challenges facing special collections today and to suggest some approaches that librarians and archivists should take to meet these challenges.

In brief, the two most important developments for special collections in the past 50 yearswere the birth of the digital world and the changes in historical approaches in scholarly research.

The challenges of digitization are well known and frequently discussed: digital access to special collections materials forces us to reconsider the importance of owning actual objects and changes the relationship between librarian/archivist and user. The concept of special collections as physical spaces has to be reconsidered– collections will become like banks, with most users of materials never setting foot in the actual buildings. And the challenge of archiving digital materials is a huge one. Blouin suggested that special collections need to recognize the importance of conceptual frameworks over ownership: we need to explain our collections and put them into context, not just acquire and index items.

The second major challenge that Blouin discussed was what he termed the Archival Divide. He suggested that special collections and the historical scholarship it has traditionally supported are on divergent paths of development. Fifty years ago there was convergenceof how special collections were described and maintained and how they were used. Archives collected the materials that scholars agreed were important, and thus had a monopoly on authoritative historical understanding. However, developments in social history, deconstruction of language, etc. havechanged this relationship.Scholars now look for historical evidence in materials outside the scope of traditional archival collections. And they are using materials in ways not addressed by traditional descriptive formats. Meanwhile, special collections have been faced with many new issues: technical challenges of DB and systems design (which demand precision in language and authority control), changing demands of diverse constituencies, broader definitions of what constitutes a historical document.

In sum, researchers are looking to use special collections materials in complex ways which cannot be understood by traditional theories of information-seeking. Referring to the ACLS Committee on Cyberinfrastructure report, Blouin suggested that librarians andarchivists must take the lead in organizing new knowledge structures.

Blouin’s concluding points on the future relationship of special collections and academic research:

  • Scholars will have more responsibility for identifying information communities
  • Traditional finding aid structures will be supplemented by these information communities

  • There will be a need for more attention to EAD and cross-collection indexing– “subcatalogs” supplementing traditional catalog.

  • Special collections will continue to exist as an academic and intellectualcenter, not just collection of materials;emphasis on teaching with collections,visible academic personnel, special programs.
  • Special Collections, finally, are a point of mediation between old and new ways of creating and recording knowledge and ideas; special collections is a place of connection, not just a repository of static materials.

My afternoon seminar of choice was “Partners in Processing: Students, Volunteers, and Paraprofessionals in the Library”. Three presentations on using non-MLS personnel to address the ubiquitous problem of the special collections backlog. Presenters from UCLA, Yale, and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation Library– all very different institutions from WFU, but still there were some interesting ideas. I was particularly intrigued by UCLA’s Center for Primary Research and Training, which provides fellowships for graduate students to work on processing manuscript collections in the library. Jack Robertson of the Jefferson Foundation described inspiringly ingenious solutions to the problems of a growing collection with a small professional staff. Aftertheir project of reconstructing Jefferson’s libraries was turned down for grant funding, the foundationgave Jefferson a membership on LibraryThing. And after six months of unsuccessful attempts to correct and enhance the Wikipedia entry on Jefferson, they gave up and started their own wiki (called the Jefferson Encyclopedia, because their BOT objected to the term wiki!).

The student/volunteer processingsuccess stories were very encouraging, since we’re about to undertake a similar project.

RBMS day 1: Special Collections in the Classroom

Wednesday, June 17, 2009 8:44 pm

First day at the Rare Books & Manuscripts Section preconference in Charlottesville, VA. Today was pre-pre-conference workshop day, and I attended “Beyond Show and Tell: Teaching Strategies for Special Collections Professionals”. Presenters were Julie Grob, Digital Projects and Instruction Librarian for Special Collections at U. of Houston, and Matt Ball, Outreach and Student Services Librarian at the undergrad library of UVA.There were about 30 participants from all over the U.S. (including one with the best job title I’ve heard this week: Curator of Puzzles at the Lilly Library at IU).

The goal of the workshop was for us to discuss the increased role of instruction in the special collections librarian’s job, to learn from current pedagogical theories, and to learn from colleagues’ experiences and innovations. We started out with lots of discussion about learning styles, which was OK but nothing I hadn’t heard before. Things improved a lot once we moved on to discussion of trends in higher ed toward inquiry based, active learning. Special collections instruction lends itself extremely well to this, and presenters and participants shared a lot of great ideas and examples of activities for getting students engaged and faculty convinced of the relevance ofour stuff to their curriculum.We ended up with a discussion of the importance of assessment and the need to develop assessment tools geared specifically toward special collections classes.

I was hoping to swap experiences with other special collections librarians who’d been embedded in classes outside the library, but apparently this isn’t as common as one would think (Julie Grob was the only other person who’d had an embedded experience). But I got loads of good ideas for next year’s class presentations and did a lot of bonding with other librarians who spend their time explaining old books to young students.

Megan at SAA

Monday, October 1, 2007 3:02 pm

Society of American Archivists annual meeting, Chicago

Beth and I attended SAA in Chicago over Labor Day weekend. Very interesting conference, as usual. And the Fairmont Hotel was just a couple of blocks from the Art Institute, Lake Michigan, and Millennium Park. An enjoyable setting, for this displaced Midwesterner!

Lots of good stuff on the unofficial conference wiki site.

Open Source Software Solutions for Collection Management and Web Delivery

Susan Hamburger from Penn State was the first presenter. She described the decision-making process whereby the Penn State library chose a management and delivery system for their EAD finding aids. The library wanted a system that would automate the generating of EAD documents in their homegrown Oracle database, and would provide a federated search tool for finding aids. Developing a prioritized criteria list was an important step in the process of evaluating several potential systems (Archeon, Archivists Toolkit, CONTENTdm v. 4.2, DLXS v. 12, XTF). After considering all the data ( cf. ), they chose ContentDM, which has performed well, with some tweaking.

The second speaker, from Mount St. Mary’s University, described their Archives’ D-Space project, in which self-deposit and self-cataloging by authorized faculty helps to preserve and make accessible the University’s scholarly output. This system has several advantages: users archive their own material, cataloging is done by subject experts, material is searchable and downloadable by users (when permitted). There are also some challenges: extensive tech support is necessary in the beginning, there is a long learning curve for many faculty, and copyright issues can be a problem.

The final presenter was from the Hoover Institution library and archives at Stanford. A few years ago they received the archives of the Firing Line television program and wanted to make the video available on the Internet. Their IT staff, however, was unwilling/unable to help with this project. So they sought support from graduate student interns from the Computer Science department (fairly plentiful at Stanford). The student interns, who ended up being exclusively Thai, developed a MySQL database with a web-based form for data entry. This homegrown system has worked well for the most part, but there are some drawbacks to relying exclusively on student workers (e.g., in 2003 the server was down for the entire summer, because all of the students who knew how to fix it were home in Thailand!). The Hoover Institution is currently seeking funding for a permanent IT position.

How Controlled is Your Vocabulary: Experience from the Digital Field

Very interesting session. The first participant was an archivist from Purdue, who talked about their Amelia Earhart digital collection and the use of controlled vocabulary in ContentDM. The Earhart collection is indexed with terms from the Thesaurus for Graphic Materials (TGM) and LCNA, with supplemental LCSH where more precise terms are needed. Problems arose when users questioned the LC subject term used for Earhart’s plane (“Electra (turboprop transports)”), which was apparently not accurate, but was the closest thing the indexers could find in the LC authority file. In the end, they created a more accurate but not LC-approved heading (“Lockheed Electra”). [Audience member asked why they didn’t submit this new heading to LC, which I thought was a valid question!]

Controlled vocabularies for many digital projects end up as a combination of local headings, LCSH, and various thesauri. This provides more precise access points, which is especially important for visual materials since they cannot be transcribed or OCR’d. But use of local headings can lead to issues, such as the need for cross-references in library catalogs (a weakness of ContentDM is that it doesn’t allow cross-references in public view). The Purdue speaker urged libraries to document local headings and suggested that we need to include derivation of each index term in metadata, so that users will know where we got them, and that we provide users with access to thesauri.

Next up was Sheila McAllister from the Digital Library of Georgia, who discussed name authority control in the Galileo system. She recommended NACO training for metadata creators [good idea], but admitted that this wouldn’t be feasible for many projects. Sheila also emphasized the need for archival name authority records to include context information (see discussion of EAC below). DLG developed NAME, a web-based form for name authorities (developed parallel to EAC).

DLG is starting to ingest NAME records as part of its thesaurus. Sheila gave us a preview of their current project, the Civil Rights Digital Library, which is making extensive use of NAME records. For example, the NAME thesaurus allows metadata creators to choose an authoritative form of a name for display in the “people browse” list, while still indexing all forms of the name. And place names in the Civil Rights DL are being associated with geographic coordinates in a Google maps interface.

In the future, DLG plans partnerships with other institutions to add more name authority records, and they will start ingesting biographical/historical notes from EAD finding aids (as NC is already doing in the NCHBio project—see below).

Finally Seth Shaw from Duke University Archives gave a presentation on folksonomies, which are organic taxonomies in which the lexicon results from descriptive activities of a user community. Seth used Flickr and LibraryThing as examples of tagging, which is the most common (but not the only) form of folksonomy.

The important thing to remember about folksonomies is that the tags are intended for personal retrieval or retrieval by a particular sub-community. Thus many terms are unique to the specific individual or community and may result in ambiguity for a larger user community.

Theoretically, as specific terms become popular in a given folksonomy, the more-used terms become standard and result in eventual consolidation into a de facto taxonomy. However, actual statistics don’t bear this out—variant and redundant terms survive and thrive in most folksonomies. Some outside intervention is necessary if a folksonomy is to evolve into something resembling a thesaurus. Seth suggested three ways that this could occur:

  • Parallel descriptions, in which controlled subject headings are provided by catalogers and uncontrolled tagging is done by users
  • Merging of codified and colloquial terms, in which some authority terms are recommended for use by taggers (for example, a suggested term might be provided as a user enters text)
  • Recommended social terminology, in which tags which reach a threshold of use are flagged for inclusion in an official thesaurus

When using folksonomies for archival digital collections, one needs to consider

  • What is being described, and at what level?
  • Who is allowed to participate in tagging? Is some subject expertise required?
  • Can we achieve critical mass—i.e. are enough users contributing tags for the resulting taxonomy to be meaningful?

An audience member made a good point about this last consideration, observing that users of Flickr, LibraryThing, YouTube, etc. have a vested interest in subject tagging because the material is their own. Users might be less likely to spend time tagging other digital archives. Seth agreed that this was an issue, and suggested that we need a tool by which researchers could describe cross-institutional holdings, which descriptions could then be harvested for their own and others’ use (e.g. OAIster ). If folksonomy activity could spread beyond individual institutions, it might attract a larger user base.

Archivists’ Toolkit Demo

Archivists’ Toolkit is an open source collections management system and relational database designed specifically for archives. It was developed by a coalition of universities who were unhappy with commercial ILS’s inability to handle archival acquisition and processing procedures. The demo was interesting. Rather amazing to see a system that doesn’t have to be tweaked (or pummeled) to serve basic archival needs. The drawback, as with all open source stuff, is that it requires a lot of local tech support. Apparently there’s a very active user group. No public access component at this point, but they’re encouraging the user group to apply for grant funding to develop one.

Archivists’ Toolkit was getting loads of publicity at the conference. I don’t know if it’s officially endorsed by SAA, but they were certainly trying to generate buzz.

Description Section business meeting

The usual committee reports, mercifully brief, with the full reports available on the website.

Yet another plug for Archivists’ Toolkit!

Finally the interesting bit: a panel presentation on Contextual Information Innovations in Archival Description, which highlighted the new beta standard EAC (Encoded Archival Context– see EAC is basically a way of standardizing the contextual information which is vital for making sense of smaller units (folders, items) in archival or manuscript collections.

In this session, Kathy Wisser gave a presentation on the development and structure of EAC, and Peter Hymas (State Library of NC) debuted the NCBHIO project, which is the beginning of a union repository of EAC records for NC archival collections. NC is one of the first states to undertake this type of initiative, and our Digital Forsyth biographical database should fit nicely into the project.

Rethinking Access and Descriptive Practice

This wasn’t the strongest session of the conference. In fact, I thought the most interesting thing about it was the speaker/audience demographics. All of the panelists were well under 40 (the final paper was presented the author’s coworker, as the author herself was at Burning Man). Over half of the audience was probably 50+. And the surprising thing was, the GenX&Y panelists seemed far more alarmed by the effects of technology on archival practice than the audience was. Perhaps because the speakers’ presentations were based mostly on professional research literature, whereas the audience was drawing from years of practical experience of seeing technologies develop and be absorbed into the library/archival mainstream?

The presenters talked mostly about archivists’ responses to our patrons’ new information-seeking behavior. An important topic…but the audience of experienced archivists/librarians seemed underwhelmed by the speakers’ shocking revelation that college students use Google more than they use the library catalog. [Is this really a bad thing? Doesn’t Google serve a useful purpose that library catalogs don’t, and aren’t meant to?]

The presenters in this session also made much of the supposed estrangement between archivists and librarians. This, I have to say, is starting to sound like a tired cliche. Maybe it was true ten or twenty years ago, but now many institutions expect their archivists to have the MLIS degree, and many librarians are working with archival materials. I’m not sure it’s accurate to state, as one speaker did, that the library catalog is a “metaphor for archivists’ alienation from design and delivery tools.” It’s certainly true that most ILS are terrible at providing access to archival collections, but my experience (and that of several audience commentators) is that archivists have been eager to make what use they can of them, to bring attention to their collections.

Not to sound too negative about the session—there were several good points made. Such as:

  • Unique materials are becoming more important to libraries, since they’re what everyone wants to digitize; archivists, as curators of these unique materials, should use their new “clout” to influence the design of next generation ILS so that these systems will become better delivery tools for archival materials.
  • To do this, archivists need to do a better job of educating themselves about design and delivery tools.
  • We need to be aware of changing ways in which people seek information: need to make collections accessible to standard search engines, not hide them in deep web; provide network-level cataloging and service so that users will have one-stop searching (e.g. Worldcat); users want discovery tools that are consistent and comprehensive.
  • When creating digital collections, remember that
    • Users want more than metadata—need to provide EAC type context information to make collections meaningful.
    • Accurate keyword searching is useful, but not a substitute for traditional subject analysis and controlled vocabulary.
    • Minimal processing at least makes collections accessible to users; no access to unprocessed collections for lengthy period of time is unacceptable.

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